The most recent seasons of Game of Thrones have been devastating on the King’s Landing power players for a legion of reasons. But as we move into Game of Thrones Season 8, it’s good to remember just how Cersei Lannister gained her seemingly cursed crown by politically targeting perceived enemies and then destroying them. And none more thoroughly earned her ire than Margaery and Loras Tyrell, the golden children of Highgarden with a refreshingly healthier sibling relationship than others in the Red Keep.
Always the schemer with her eyes on the prize—whether or not that prize actually corresponds with reality—Cersei spent all of season 5 orchestrating with smiling malevolence the destruction of the young queen who had usurped her in the people and courtiers’ hearts, as well as the rose-draped horse she rode in on. It was a genuinely stunning development when she allowed the Church to arrest a sitting queen, not least of all because the Tyrells were previously the Lannisters’ only major ally, and afterward they became enemies forevermore.
That’s what happens when one gets in bed with the Church (metaphorically speaking, of course) simply to get Margaery arrested and to hound her trusted brother Loras Tyrell into a prison cell with accusations of homosexuality—a capital crime in barbaric Westeros.
However, Margaery and Loras were always doomed if one considers the guide of history from which their inspiration sprung. Aye, George R.R. Martin’s world might be fantasy, but its influences are not. So join us as we look at a real life brother and sister pairing that heavily inspired Martin and Game of Thrones.
Loras Tyrell / George Boleyn
Obviously a parallel of the famed Boleyn family in English history, the Tyrells have specific overlaps to both the historical records and the myths surrounding the house that made Henry VIII stray from his first wife Catherine d’Aragon…and the entirety of Great Britain wander a great distance from the Catholic Church’s reach.
Famously, Anne Boleyn was Henry’s fabled lady of green sleeves whose ability to deny the king his lascivious desires led to a years-long courtship that culminated with Henry divorcing his first wife by any means necessary, including a split from the papacy (which was only too welcomed by the Boleyns). But also crucial to the rising and falling fortunes of the Boleyns was Anne’s beloved and apparently outspokenly Lutheran-supporting brother, George Boleyn.
A popular courtier in the early 16th century, George—much like Loras Tyrell—saw his standing in the King’s court raise considerably after his sister became the new Queen. Already a man of position when Henry began courting Anne in 1526, George Boleyn was a member of the Privy Chamber, and thus a gentleman who waited on the King much like the Kingsguard (which Loras was a member of in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels). But his status grew considerably with Anne’s ascension, and the longer she held off Henry’s advances, the higher her family climbed.
Anne’s years-long engagement to Henry began in 1527 when she accepted his proposal, and the King falsely assumed an annulment would take a matter of months. In the meantime, George became a personal attendant to Henry as his Esquire of the Body and would eventually be appointed both keeper and steward of the Palace of Beaulieu. Also, much like Loras’ Braavos-bound father on Game of Thrones, George Boleyn became a popular diplomat for Henry, representing English interests as an ambassador to France. He was even inducted into Parliament by 1533.
However, the greatest influences George Boleyn has had on Game of Thrones is in the innuendo and revisionist history surrounding the figure whose fate was inseparably linked to Queen Anne. And how could it not be when his enemies, including Spain’s Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys (who looked after the interests of Spanish-born Catherine and her daughter by Henry, Mary Tudor), never considered George Boleyn more than the “mistress’s brother?”
George Boleyn has curiously developed the hush rumor of being gay in the 20th century. The first historian to suggest this was Retha Warnicke who brought the point up in a 1987 paper entitled “Sexual Heresy at the Court of King Henry VIII” and then again in the subsequent book, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn. While there were some rumors over the centuries that all of Anne’s accused lovers were in actuality sodomites (or in modern terms bisexual), Warnicke explicitly argued that the musician who agreed under torture that he had sex with Anne Boleyn, musician Mark Smeaton, was in fact George Boleyn’s lover. Hence when they took down one gay courtier in Smeaton, they took down the equally gay brother who Warnicke contends kept Smeaton, Anne’s music tutor, as a secret paramour. As evidence, Warnicke points to a book George gave Mark that ridiculed the institution of marriage. Further, George’s marriage to Jane Parker never produced any children, and it is commonly argued that she testified against her husband (though there is no substantial evidence backing up this claim).
These accusations seem tenuous at best since in addition to being married, his enemies wrote that George Boleyn also was a womanizer. He also had a habit of reading and transcribing many taboo things that were considered scandalous for the era, such as when he personally translated two anti-Catholic religious texts from French to English as a gift for Anne.
Whatever is the truth of his persuasion, the image of George Boleyn as a closeted gay man whose lover’s confession helped bring down both him and his sister has persisted throughout fiction, including on Showtime’s soapy fun The Tudors and in Philippa Gregory’s insultingly abysmal The Other Boleyn Girl (also known as the novel that justifies the incest charges). It also clearly influenced George R.R. Martin and Game of Thrones, because the closeted gay Loras Tyrell is brother to a contentious queen when his lover confesses to knowing Loras in the biblical sense, which leads to the arrest of both Loras and Margaery. Similarly, George Boleyn was publicly snubbed from joining the knightly Order of Garter on April 23, 1536, and by May 2, he was arrested following a jousting match for a supposed incestuous relationship with Queen Anne…
Margaery Tyrell / Anne Boleyn
This more on-point parallel is so glaring that Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss curiously toned it down for this season as the chickens came home to roost.
One of the most controversial figures in English history, Anne Boleyn has been just as much described throughout the centuries as a social climbing seductress as she has been the martyred mother of greatness. After all, she did give birth to Elizabeth, the greatest monarch Britain has ever known. Having been placed under both the “virgin” and “whore” motif, as well as most recently in the 19th and 20th centuries redefined as a feminist trailblazer ahead of her time, it is hard to know the real Anne Boleyn from the stories, much like it is hard to know the real Margaery Tyrell. Keeping her true motivations cryptically close to the chest in the literary “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Margaery’s gameplaying machinations are much more explicit on Game of Thrones, but every bit as complex.
Highly ambitious, Margaery Tyrell, much like Anne Boleyn, played the courtier games well with multiple kings until she positioned herself into the unlikely marriage of one of them. And also like Anne Boleyn, Margaery’s rise to power has made her some powerful enemies in the faithful. It should even be noted that Jonathan Pryce, who plays the High Sparrow on Game of Thrones, played the far more pragmatic Cardinal Wolsey on BBC/PBS’ Wolf Hall, who was a legendary political foe of Anne Boleyn and the religious reforms she ultimately brought to England.
But like Anne, Margaery is interested in public works (though of a less religious nature), and also like Anne, she found herself targeted by a royal conspiracy to bring her low. In history, Anne Boleyn was the apple of Henry VIII’s eye until she wasn’t. Catching his attention with her learned abilities from the French court, including singing, dancing, the fluent ability to speak French, play the lute, and her infamous quick wit (and temper), Henry spent the better part of a decade courting the one woman who denied him her bed. Her first pregnancy—which was consummated well before the marriage since it took seven years to break away from the Church—gave birth to another daughter for Henry as opposed to a coveted son. And by the time her second pregnancy ended in miscarriage, Henry’s eyes had already turned to one of Anne’s ladies in waiting, Jane Seymour. With the love and passion that drove Henry for the better part of a decade gone, so too soon was Anne’s head.
He accomplished this by turning to former erstwhile Boleyn supporter and fellow Protestant reformer Thomas Cromwell to secretly investigate Anne’s supposed infidelities. According to Spanish Chapuys, Cromwell even admitted much of the witch hunt was engineered at the King’s behest, and that he showed some sense of respect to the later deceased Anne and George Boleyn.
Wrote Chapuys, “Cromwell observed [that] since the execution of the Royal mistress, things will go on better than before…He himself had been authorized and commissioned by the King to prosecute, and bring to an end the mistress’s trial, to do which he had taken considerable trouble. It was he who…had planned and brought about the whole affair…After which avowal, Cromwell went on to extol beyond measure the sense, the wit, and the courage of the deceased Royal mistress as well as of her brother.”
Whatever wit or courage Cromwell posthumously extolled on the Boleyns, it was only after he accused them of incest and treason. It was part of a larger list of men who were charged, tried, and ultimately put to death. However, the only one of the four charged non-Boleyns to confess was musician Mark Smeaton, who was likely tortured during questioning.
The resulting sentence for the five “guilty” men was to be hanged and drawn and quartered, and Anne Boleyn was to be burned alive. Henry, ever the merciful King, commuted all of their sentences to simple beheading. From her cell in the Tower of London, Anne could hear when her brother George Boleyn was decapitated on May 17th. Two days later, she also was beheaded—apparently by the finest executioner of France, again a token of Henry’s mercy.
While the show has both arrested and accused of committing capital offenses in the eyes of the Church, George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” makes the influences even more explicit.
Indeed, Cersei’s plan to ensnare Margaery is much more elaborate, as she has several men falsely confess to knowing the interiors of Margaery’s bedroom. Also, they torture Margaery’s musician, the Blue Bard, to confess to having lay with Queen Margaery; they also accuse Loras Tyrell of having committed incest with Margaery (Loras is actually not present in King’s Landing during these proceedings on the page). Ergo, when Margaery was finally arrested in the novel, it was for the exact same fictitious crimes that placed Anne Boleyn under a Frenchman’s blade. There is also the disturbing extra irony that this plan was exacted by Cersei, who is grotesquely guilty of incestuous infidelity.
That irony, and its historical parallels to the Boleyns, is so rich that it’s mystifying that Benioff and Weiss toned down the parallels for the HBO series. Perhaps they figured casting Showtime’s Anne Boleyn, Natalie Dormer, in the role of Margaery was enough overlap? After all, much like Dormer’s Anne Boleyn, Margaery uses her femininity and unmatched courtier intelligence to manipulate her way into the orbit of several kings before finally marrying Tommen. And even with a crown on her head, she could not stop other royal relatives from attempting to remove it with an axe and false accusations that also appear to condemn her rumored gay brother to a dance at the gallows.
In the end, the Tyrells instead went up in a green puff of smoke and flame, but in the end a charismatic queen and her beloved brother were slaughtered due to the machinations of another monarch who was oblivious to the fact that they were on the decline. Still, the throne remains Cersei’s…
This article was originally published on May 20, 2015.